Panettone! Panettone!

IMG_1990BSMbanner_baked-150There are definitely times when I, as a baker with decidedly perfectionist tendencies, need to step back, take a deep breath, and realize: things aren’t always going to be as beautiful as anticipated.  Even Martha Stewart must have had those days… and those several tries when she pulled her perfectly-coiffed hair and agonized that “it just wasn’t coming out RIGHT”.  This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment – Chocolate-Chip Orange Panettone, a perfect treat for the Christmas holidays – presented one of those challenging times for me, not so much in the making but rather, during the baking – as you will see below.  This wasn’t altogether pleasant during a time when I typically take a baking hiatus, but the results – at first taste – were really not all that unpleasant either.

IMG_1995To begin with, I should state that, while I enjoy baking bread, I do not do it often enough to feel complete confidence in it.  I therefore hesitate to ever say I am a bread baker.  Panettone, for those of you who do not know, is a festive, slightly sweet bread studded with candied fruits, raisins, and/or nuts, which usually surfaces around the holidays – but probably more often in Italy, or among Italian families.  Renato Poliafito of Baked, being of Italian heritage, is a huge fan.  I myself have only eaten panettone a few times in my life and have not been a huge fan.  I don’t like citron or any of the candied fruits or nuts, and the texture has always leaned toward dry.  I was intrigued to tackle this recipe, however – a deep, dark, decadent chocolate panettone that (thankfully) isn’t too sweet, and swaps out the candied fruits and nuts (again, thankfully) for delicious homemade candied orange peel and chocolate chips.  Yum.

I won’t go into too much detail on the recipe; it involves yeast, rising dough, and the option of making your own candied orange peel – which I did – so you can imagine: it’s pretty involved for the amateur baker.  If you’re up to the challenge, the effort and payoff is pretty sweet.  A few tips I want to share about my experience with Baked’s recipe:

  • Paper panettone molds may seem hard to find, but they’re really not – and IMG_1984they’re relatively cheap.  You can easily mail order them through Amazon or get them at a Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table.  In a pinch, there are alternative ways of making a mold, including using a coffee can (see Baked Elements for some suggestions).  I loved how, as the dough rose within the paper mold, the houndstooth design on the exterior dissolved (from the grease in the dough) to reveal the pretty floral design hidden underneath.  Pretty cool.
  • The Baked Sunday Mornings link provided below does not include Baked’s candied orange peel recipe, but if you want to try it, I promise you, you will adore it.  It’s super-easy, and you’ll be delighted at how you made something so deliciously akin to a homemade Fruit Roll-Up.  Seriously.  Make extra, and roll strips in some granulated sugar for a fun holiday treat.  Shoot me an email or leave me a comment if you would like me to post the recipe.  I know it seems like a tad much to make your own candied peel, but it’s not hard and it’s worth it.
  • A lot of times, I am personally daunted by yeast bread recipes when it comes to ‘proofing’ the yeast.  This process is when you add a warm liquid – either water or milk – to activate the dry yeast and get it ‘going’, as it were, for your dough.  Usually, the liquid should be ‘lukewarm’.  Never fear – you are not alone if things like this strike the fear of God in you… I’m the same way.  It’s like I’m afraid I will actually kill the living creature that is the yeast if I add water or milk that is too hot, or even worse, not stir it into action at all by adding liquid that is too cold.  This time around, I consulted my boyfriend Jake, who is a bit more adept at bread-baking than I am, and he mentioned that the liquid should be at a temperature comfortable enough that you can test it with your finger and notice that it is almost be room temp; or at least slightly warm enough that the difference between air temp and liquid temp is hardly noticeable.  I attempted this with this dough (I microwaved the milk) and it seemed to do the trick.
  • You should probably know right away that your kitchen counter will be covered in flour and cocoa when making this.  After the first rise of your dough, you will add the risen ball of dough to a remaining batch of flour, cocoa and sugar, and instantly, once you turn on that mixer – get ready for the cloud to burst up from the bowl.  Suggestion: cover your mixer with a dish towel or your arms/hands to keep the flour from sloshing out of the bowl.  Your mixer will also endure quite a heavy workout with this recipe.  I’m fiercely protective of my precious Kitchen Aid mixer, and I made two of these panettone – once I was done mixing up the dough for both, I swear my Kitchen Aid was panting with exhaustion.  It’s a tough dough, and kneading the dough for upwards of almost 10 minutes (I don’t think I took it to the full 15 listed in the recipe) is tough on the motor, which leads me to believe this is best made in a more industrial machine.  Listen to your mixer’s motor.  If worse comes to worse, dump the dough out onto a lightly-floured board or surface and hand-knead the dough yourself.  Flatten the dough out into a rectangle, scatter on your orange peel and chocolate chips, and fold these ingredients in by hand to finish.
  • REALLY take seriously Baked’s note that when you are allowing the dough to rise for the second time in the panettone mold, you only let it rise to the topof the mold. Let it rise any further, and you will have a monster on your hands, like yours truly.  As you will seein the photo, my panettone practically exploded over the mold and over onto the sheet pan. Not very attractive – definitely not the pretty domed look you want for your panettone. This was my tragic mistake that I mention at the beginning of this blog – the error that had the perfectionist in me screaming, “Noooooo!!!!!”  I had this gorgeous, smooth dough to begin with… but apparently, yes, you can let the dough over-rise.  Silly me, thinking it didn’t matter how long you let it rise.  Oh yes.  Yes, it does.  So – keep an eye on your rising dough.  As soon as it begins to clear the top of that mold – maybe even just before – you best fire up that oven and get that baby in there.  I sawed off the over-risen section and simply nibbled away at chunks of it.  I also discovered that, because it’s a lighter density ingredient, all of my candied orange peel had migrated to this section in the baking (whomp whomp…) and there was scarcely any peel in the main panettone.  This was a tremendous bummer.

IMG_1987Perfectionist be damned… this panettone was actually pretty delicious, over-risen and all.  It may not win any beauty contests, but it’s definitely a bread you can tear into like a gluttonous savage (as you should do with all yummy holiday treats, right?) and enjoy as the pockets of chocolate burst in your mouth and you taste the chewy tang of the orange peel.  Pretty scrumptious.  The texture was just right; I liked the drier, crispier crunch of the outer crust and the softer, slightly moist, fibrous crumb inside.  It was barely dry at all – but be careful after cutting it not to leave it sitting out and exposed too long, as it can dry out fast.  While toasting this panettone presents a tempting prospect, it may be tricky in a standard toaster with the melty chocolate chips; oven toasting may be the best option if you want to attempt this.

In comparison to my fellow BSM bloggers, the photos of my panettone are pretty embarrassing, I gotta admit.  It also is not a very photogenic loaf of bread, honestly. However, as I have done with previous goof-ups (ahem… Brooksters), I didn’t want to be a baker ashamed or afraid of owning up when he’s made a mistake.  I know what to do the next time I make this recipe!

To try your own hand at a delicious panettone, follow this link:

Chocolate-Chip Orange Panettone

All of this being said… have a delightful Christmas, one and all.  Be merry.  Be bright.  And a Happy New Year too!  See you on the flip-side in 2014!

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Salty, sweet, heavenly cookie love

IMG_1885fbcookieswap2013_badgewhiteI never actually thought I would admit this, but I have completely fallen in love with a cookie.  If you’re anything like me, the romance of salty and sweet in a cookie – or any dessert, really – is irresistible.  Add a little chocolate to it, even better.  The great baker and cookbook author extraordinaire, Dorie Greenspan, advocates a sprinkling of salt across the top of her famous chocolate chip cookies as a final piéce de rèsistance.  What brilliant inspiration!

The particular object of my cookie affection doesn’t contain the typical bittersweet chocolate I go head over heels for – instead, we’re talking white chocolate.  The salt?  Flowery yet subtle fleur de sel.  The sweet?  A homey, caramel-flavored brown sugar cookie, studded with lots of old-fashioned oats for a little chew.  Have I tempted your taste buds yet?  If so… then ladies and gentlemen – I present probably my favorite cookie of the year: Shauna Sever’s Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies, from her fantastic book, Pure Vanilla.

I’ve said it many times, every time I’ve made them: “These cookies… damn… are like crack.”  They’re relatively easy to make, coming together like a typical oatmeal chocolate IMG_1880chip cookie.  I’ve lamented – several times (just skim back through my blogs on cookies) – my almost hopeless inability to make cookies that hold their shape while baking.  My perfectionist, ‘ideal’ cookie comes out of the oven with a thicker, almost plump, chewy center and a caramelized, browned, almost crispy edge.  This recipe is forgiving enough that I’ve nearly accomplished that result with only a few slight tweaks, and I’m happy to share those tweaks with you below (feel free to use them or make the recipe as is).

I felt so passionately about these cookies that when I discovered one of my favorite blogs, Love & Olive Oil, was organizing a cookie swap among food bloggers to raise money for children with cancer, I knew right away that: #1 – given the cause, I just had to jump in and participate, and #2 – I would have to participate with these cookies.  Much as, sometimes, I relish squirreling away fantastic recipes as secrets best-kept between myself, my Kitchen Aid mixer, and the four walls of my apartment kitchen, I decided that if I can pass along the salted vanilla chip oatmeal love, by all means, I will do it!

If any of the ingredients in this recipe make you even remotely happy, you will be grinning from ear to ear at first bite.  I dare you to eat just one.

SALTED VANILLA CHIP OATMEAL COOKIES

Recipe by Shauna Sever,
from her book Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques

Makes 3 dozen 3-inch cookies

IMG_18923 cups old-fashioned oats
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda*
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
⅔ cup brown sugar, packed
⅔ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
8 ounces white chocolate, chopped*
2 tablespoons Vanilla Fleur de Sel, for sprinkling*

*See my notes

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat oven to 350ºF.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

In a large bowl, whisk oats, flour, baking soda, and salt to blend well.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and vanilla extract on medium-high speed until blended and creamy.  Add sugars and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time.  Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add oat mixture, then white chocolate.

Scoop batter, 2 tablespoons at a time, onto prepared baking sheets, about 8 cookies to a sheet.  Sprinkle a bit of vanilla fleur de sel onto each cookie. Bake until cookies are golden around the edges, but still a bit soft in the centers, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating sheets from front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking.  Do not overbake.  Let cookies cool on sheets for 2 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

*NOTES:

  • I tend to like a cookie that holds its shape and is more plump and chewy.  Whenever I make this recipe, instead of adding 1 whole teaspoon of baking soda, I swap out a ½ teaspoon of the baking soda for baking powder to give these a little ‘lift’.  Don’t remove the soda all together; use a ½ teaspoon of each.  It’s good to have the two counter-balancing each other. Sift the baking powder in with the other dry ingredients.
  • Sever mentions that these cookies are best with chopped chunks of good white chocolate, but I typically use white chocolate chips, which are fine (I prefer Ghirardelli).  By all means, try them with chopped white chocolate – I’m sure they would be amazing and take the cookies to an entirely new level.
  • I don’t make these as large as Sever does – I use a 1 tablespoon-sized scoop and can fit a dozen to a cookie sheet.  Of course, keep an eye on the baking time if you make them smaller!
  • IMG_1881A fellow food blogger once provided me with the suggestion to scoop out, then chill, your cookies for a few hours – or for best results, overnight – prior to baking them off.  As you can imagine, this requires a good amount of planning, restraint, and patience on my part, but I’ve found that it’s totally worth it.  Completely chilling your cookie dough allows the fats in the dough to coat and bind the particles of all-purpose flour.  As a result, the dough almost ‘plumps up’ and dries out a touch more, the cookie is more likely to hold its shape (and not to spread) while baking, and the flavors meld beautifully – yielding an almost caramel-like finish to theIMG_1877 taste. These cookies – much like chocolate chip cookies – are splendid when the dough has been allowed to ‘age’ a bit in the refrigerator.  Trust me.  Do yourself a favor and let these sit for a while before baking them off.  Keep them in the refrigerator until just before you’re ready to bake them.  To aim for a more uniform shape, I like to gently roll the balls of dough between my palms before placing them on the parchment-lined sheets and sprinkling them with the salt.
  • Sever uses her own homemade Vanilla Fleur de Sel to sprinkle on top of these cookies, but I usually just use regular fleur de sel – does just fine.  Whatever you do, do not substitute table salt, coarse salt, or kosher salt for the fleur de sel.  It’s best if you can find a good-quality flaky salt, like Maldon, or just a reasonable fleur de sel.  You’ll pay a little more for it, but I hope I can justify the cost to you by promising you will find many more glorious uses for it (namely, making more of these cookies).  If you want to go fancy and make your own Vanilla Fleur de Sel for these cookies, I present Sever’s instructions:  “All you need is a box of good flaky sea salt (I love Maldon Sea Salt Flakes) and a whole, split vanilla bean or two.  Put them in a lidded jar and shake it every couple of days, letting the vanilla penetrate and perfume the salt for a week or so.  The result is a parcel of unexpected culinary genius that makes a perfect gift for those perennially unimpressed foodies in your life… A general rule, use about 1 cup of flaky sea salt per bean.”

I packaged up these cookies in a plastic bag, nestled down into a small shirt box with blue tissue paper and a copy of the recipe, as well as my business card.  I wrapped the shirt box IMG_1895with pretty silver polka dot paper and attached a message to my fellow bloggers letting them know what kind of cookies were inside.  3 boxes (1 dozen each) were then sent out to 3 different food bloggers:  Susan Dikeman-Nerenberg of The Foodette (Austin, Texas), Brianne Izzo of Cupcakes & Kale Chips (Somerset, New Jersey), and Brittany Everett of Kitchenette (San Francisco, California).  I hope they fell in love with these cookies as much as I did!  In return, I received 3 different dozens of cookies from 3 different bloggers in my own mailbox… all were absolutely scrumptious, and disappeared pretty quickly!  I’m thrilled that this fun cookie blog has connected me to more food bloggers who enjoy the art of baking just as much as I do – and contributed to such a worthy cause as well during the holiday season.

If you’re looking for another cookie to add to your Christmas cookie baking repertoire – or just for anytime –  I guarantee you will love these Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies.  While you’re at it, be sure to visit Amazon and pick up a copy of Shauna Sever’s fantastic book, Pure Vanilla.  It’s an absolute treasure trove of fantastic vanilla-themed recipes that even a complete chocoholic like me goes completely crazy for – not to mention a great gift for the vanilla fanatics in your life!

Happy Holidays and Happy Baking to all of you!

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Oh fudge!

IMG_1954BSMbanner_baked-150I’m going to be truthful with you about something.  I’m not a hard-hearted fellow, but I’m a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the holidays.  They don’t hold as much magic and splendor for me as they did when I was a child, and I suppose that’s all just a part of getting older.  I detest the commercialism of Christmas, and how folks basically turn into gift-grubbing zombies from Black Friday through December 26th (this is, of course, an exaggeration on my part – not everyone is like that! Calm down and have a cookie…).  I prefer the quieter ways of celebrating – like staying warm and cozy indoors bundled up under an afghan while the snow flies outside… a good cup of coffee or cocoa nearby, sided with a plate of homemade sugar cookies… some Christmas music softly playing in the background… perhaps a good book to read… a beautiful Christmas tree shining and resplendent before me to admire.  I relegate all of my shopping to the online variety.  (Okay, I suppose I do enjoy the holidays a little more than I care to admit.)

The holidays definitely are an occasion for peaceful reflection.  They are a time to step back, review the year, and celebrate with good friends and family.  This is what I value most about this time of year.  The holidays also are a time when bakers typically go a little crazy, stocking up on loads of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs and churning out dozens upon dozens of delicious Christmas cookies.  Not me.  I usually take the holidays off as a baker, unless I am invited to parties or events for which I am asked to bring a sweet treat (which happens quite frequently – and I am happy to oblige).  Whenever I have made lots of Christmas cookies, I’ve found that all of those wonderful ingredients I invested in go to waste – with so many varieties of cookies in the offing, and even after handing lots of them out, a ton of them still go into the garbage because – let’s face it – some cookies have a short storage life, go stale and – yep – we get tired of them.  So I vowed not to do that anymore.

IMG_1947I mention all of this because plenty of folks I know like to make – not cookies – but candy for holiday gifts; peppermint bark, spiced nuts, and fudge being some popular varieties.  I’ve never been a huge fan of fudge – it’s typically grainy from so many sugar crystals and cloyingly sweet; so much so that your mouth hurts with one bite and you’re begging for a huge glass of milk to swill it down.  Not so with this week’s Baked Sunday Morning’s selection – Velvet Chocolate Walnut Fudge with Olive Oil and Fleur de Sel.  If you enjoy making your own homemade fudge and have been seeking a recipe for fudge with a perfect, silky-smooth texture – you’ve come to the right place.

The starting point, or I should say ‘base’, for this IMG_1918luscious fudge – like many fudge recipes – is light, airy, heavenly marshmallow creme.  Good old Fluff always does the trick, but if you’re in for a fun little challenge, try making your own.  The recipe is included in the link below.  You may be surprised that it’s not as hard as you think.

In a saucepan, you will then mix the marshmallow creme with both granulated and dark brown sugars, evaporated milk, butter, and salt, and let this thick, gooey mixture cook over low to gradually medium to medium high heat until a candy thermometer registers 230 degrees F.  Now, I won’t lie to you – this is a tricky step.  Make sure you use a good heat-safe spatula or a whisk to keep this syrupy mixture in constant motion as it heats.  Do not walk away from the pan.  The reason I tell you this is that the sugars and the marshmallow creme have a tendency to heat up rather fast.  They may caramelize and burn to the bottom of the saucepan if you’re not careful, so you need to keep stirring.  I had a panic moment for a bit there, and wondered if the mixture would, indeed, ever reach 230 degrees, but it eventually did.  Look for steam bubbles to rise and break along the surface as you vigorously stir.  If you’re new to candy making, don’t be too worried about this – and don’t fear recipes that include a candy thermometer!  If you purchase a decent one (it doesn’t need to be expensive) and know how to read it, it will do its job and you will be fine!

Here’s where the decadence comes in: an equal mix of bittersweet or dark chocolate and milk chocolate is then gently folded into the warm sugar mixture.  I’m a bit of a chocoholic and self-professed chocolate snob.  As the recipe and many of my fellow bakers would suggest, when making fudge, a top-quality chocolate – if you have it and can afford it – is key here.  Unfortunately, I cannot afford it, but I typically find that Ghirardelli baking chocolate chips work sufficiently.  I would not advise using Nestle or Hershey’s chocolate chips; they contain more stabilizers and do not melt as smoothly and luxuriously as the Ghirardelli.  For the nuts, I actually swapped out the toasted walnuts called for in this recipe for toasted pecans.  I’m not a walnut fan and, while I make most attempts to stay true and not stray from Baked’s recipes, this particular recipe sounded too delicious for me to taste once and abandon, as I knew I would if I had used icky, disgusting walnuts… so I went with a nut I knew I would eat and be happy with.  Pecans are a good substitute for walnuts, as they almost have a similar crunchy texture to them, especially when toasted nicely in the oven.

Once the chocolate and nuts are stirred in, the mixture becomes denser, thicker, and definitely more the consistency of fudge.  Pour this into a foiled-lined, buttered 8-inch pan, IMG_1924smooth the top with an offset spatula, and let sit for about 20 minutes or so.  I then lightly scored the top surface of the fudge with a small, thin knife into 16 squares, and used the blunt end of a chopstick to indent a small ‘x’ mark on the top of each piece (the recipe suggests using a small spoon, but I found this did the trick nicely).  This ‘x’ holds a nice drizzle of olive oil when you cut and serve the fudge, sprinkling it with a pinch of fleur de sel (or good, flaky sea salt).

IMG_1960Now – “wait a minute!”, you may be yelling… olive oil?  Sea salt?  Trust me.  Trust Baked.  They know what they are doing here.  I never would have believed it, but this extra flourish elevates standard fudge to a new level, though I will go out on a limb and say this isn’t even ‘standard fudge’.  One bite, and you discover that – thanks to that hard work at the stovetop cooking down those sugars – gone is the typical sugar graininess you might usually find in homemade fudge.  The dark and milk chocolates work harmoniously and provide a warm, balanced flavor that isn’t too overly sweet, and this warmth is further deepened by the flowery, earthy olive oil and the slight bite of the fleur de sel.  I confess that I usually enjoy my fudge like I enjoy my chocolate bars – smooth, simple, and unadulterated by nuts or any kind of add-ins – but I did really like the textural contrast and crunch of the pecans in this fudge.  Each bite is to be savored, truly.  While not as rich as some fudges, don’t get me wrong – it’s still rich… you may want to have that glass of milk handy.  It’s an excellent pairing!

IMG_1949One final note: there is some confusion in the book in regards to the yield.  The suggested yield at the top of the recipe is 24 pieces, but the instructions mention to cut the fudge into 16 squares.  I followed the instructions and cut 16 squares, which also made it easier to make the ‘x’ indentation for the olive oil on top.  However, bear in mind that fudge is exceptionally rich and decadent.  If you make 16 squares as well, you may find that one square is sufficient, or best split, between two people.  If you can cut these into 24 equal pieces, all the better (maybe make your indentations into a small, straight trough instead of an ‘x’).  Baked suggests that this fudge would be the perfect holiday gift, packaged with a small box of fleur de sel and a mini bottle of good olive oil.  I would agree!  (In case you were wondering which olive olive I would suggest, I’ve become a tremendous fan of Paesano Extra Virgin Olive Oil.)

Whether you’re like me and prefer those cozier, quieter holidays… or if your kitchen is a flurry of Christmas baking excitement in the next week or two – one thing is for sure: you can’t go wrong with adding this very welcome, elegant fudge to your repertoire, either for sharing as gifts or enjoying yourself:

Chocolate Walnut Fudge with Olive Oil & Fleur de Sel

Happy holiday baking from the (somewhat) Grinch himself!  Now that my tree is finally up, I’m back to that couch, coffee, afghan and book… as the snow is just starting to come down outside.  I think a piece of fudge may be in order as well…

*Stay tuned for a special bonus blog on Wednesday, December 11th, with the cookie recipe I made for the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2013!  You won’t want to miss it!

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